Why We Need To Invest More In Nonprofits

 “Supporting the efforts of not-for-profit entrepreneurs and visionaries will make us a better society and reduce suffering.”

Covid-19 has already had catastrophic effects on the business world, forcing tens of thousands of companies, including major brands like JC Penney and Hertz, into bankruptcy.

Nonprofits are also facing a painful financial reckoning.

According to Candid, a leading nonprofit resource, up to 38% of all charities in America may close before the pandemic is over; globally, the estimate is the same. But numbers alone can’t tell the full story. We know that 50% of emergency food providers in the Bronx have been forced to close their doors, but we’ll never know just what happened to the innumerable families who depended upon those groceries. For every nonprofit that closes, a dozen, or a hundred, or a thousand needs go unmet, each causing true human suffering.

This moment urgently calls for new ideas to fight emerging problems, and nimble, cost-effective ways to help those whose last lifelines have already dried up. In the for-profit sector, this kind of innovation has long been spurred by the work of private equity and venture capital firms, which make targeted investments into early stage, important projects, to secure huge returns later. To meet our looming nonprofit crisis, we must spur a similar renaissance in charitable innovation, and incubate the next generation of brilliant social justice leaders. 

The Urban Justice Center — the organization I founded — is one of the only groups to focus on supporting not-for-profit entrepreneurs. We have spent decades incubating social justice projects, and have mentored leading activists working on nearly any issue you can name. In 2010, when a young law student was looking for a home for a project she had launched at Yale Law School, I welcomed her into our fold; eight years later, Becca Heller was named a MacArthur Genius Fellow for her work assisting vulnerable refugees, and today, after incubating at UJC for several years, her International Refugee Assistance Project is at the forefront of asylum work around the world. Similarly, in 2002, a lawyer in our project for homeless gay and lesbian youth proposed a new project, focusing on the legal rights of transgender individuals. After several years with us at UJC, Dean Spade and his Sylvia Rivera Law Project are now on the cutting edge of transgender legal activism. And long before Cory Booker was a candidate for president, or a Senator from New Jersey, he was a young person, staying on my couch, starting the Newark Youth Project at the Urban Justice Center.

Now at UJC we’re innovating on our own innovation: We have borrowed from the world of Silicon Valley angel investors and created a Social Justice Accelerator (SJA), which formalizes our mentoring work. At every step of the way, we have been assisted by someone who is intimately connected with the world of tech accelerators, Nick Taranto, founder of the meal delivery startup Plated. With his assistance, we’re shaking up the world of nonprofit entrepreneurship. 

Our first class of fellows graduates from the SJA this month. Every one of them has made impressive strides at effectuating their visions, from creating a world free of uncontrolled government surveillance; to building a safe harbor for young immigrant women who have survived sexual trauma; to developing positive mentoring programs for at-risk youth in the Bronx; to creating the premiere online resource for LGBTQ asylum seekers; to providing crucial support for exploited college athletes. All of these are critical issues affecting vulnerable people right now, which needed fresh ideas, new approaches, and an infusion of energy. Our SJA fellows bring the solutions, and we make it easy for them to get to work, eliminating the red tape that keeps many young nonprofits from getting off the ground. 

This is just the beginning of our efforts to support nonprofit entrepreneurs. Recently, The New York Times reported a more than 25% increase in empty corporate real estate in the city, and I was thrown back to my early days launching the Urban Justice Center from an abandoned building in Harlem. These empty spaces could become community hubs, offices, meeting rooms, and the backbone of a rebirth of nonprofits in our city. To ensure they do, we’re using our own empty office space to launch a co-working initiative, where nonprofit innovators can get subsidized office space, share ideas, access expert guidance and services, and gain all the benefits derived from an affinity community — an important boost when you’re charting new territory and you might feel out at sea. 

As a society, we must provide significantly more resources to not-for-profit innovators — resources that mirror the help we provide to for-profit visionaries. Because for-profit entrepreneurs can reap huge profits, they receive all the support they need. In this moment of devastation, we must realize the importance that new thinking can provide for solving society’s ills. Perhaps the only silver lining to this pandemic is that it gives us the chance to undertake the kind of disruption and re-imagining that the for-profit sector so often benefits from. 

Out of this wreckage, a Phoenix can fly. Supporting the efforts of not-for-profit entrepreneurs and visionaries will make us a better society and reduce suffering; it will get us to the other side of this pandemic and it will transform the world we find there.

Doug Lasdon is the Executive Director of the Urban Justice Center.